by Jane Meneely
Memory magnifies events. That said, let me tell you about the time Spa Creek dried to a mere trickle one summer day, when the tide sucked everything out of the creek bed but the docks.
Spa Creek normally wheedled its way past the Annapolis city dock, threaded itself through the Eastport bridge, and rubbed up against a shoreline of old wharves and cattails and massive maple and oak trees that leaned into their own reflections. There were plenty of docks and houses and street ends on the "town" side of the creek; the opposite shore was too far off the beaten track to be worthy of homesteading. A few sailboats lay at anchor in the deeper creek water; workboats clung to the street ends, sterns tied to heavy iron rings in the seawall, bows tied tentatively to an old tree limb or half-rotted piling that had been pounded into the muck.
We lived in a house on Market Street. I was five years old, a grubby little tomboy with scraped knees and hand-me-down dungarees. Photographs show me with an unruly clump of curly hair on top of my head-coiled tendrils reaching this way and that as if flying to the moon would be a safer bet than staying put. My little round belly, tender and yellow as a toad's, pudges out from my T-shirt like a waterman's gut.
In those days I rather liked the smell of tar and dogs and the mounds of seaweed, all gnarled with dead fish and driftwood, that bunched up on the lip of the water at low tide, and on this particular morning, the fetid marsh smell rose in hot whiffs from the creek basin and drew us kids down to the seawall to see what our noses already knew: that the creek bed lay as bare and naked as a dead muskrat. We stood there, my eight-year-old brother Dickie, his friends Peter and Vincent, and I, gaping at the broad expanse of muck that lay open to the sky. We stared past the relatively hard sand of the shoreline, which occasionally showed its wet toes on a normal low tide, past the sodden mass of seaweed that lay gasping and sweating without the protective skirt of the creek to hide in, out to where we could actually see the mooring anchor of a little sailboat that lay groaning on its side, a sea gull perched quizzically on the boat's upended scupper.
As we watched, a group of older boys lurched their way through the treasury of the creek bottom like a ragged band of Neanderthals, pulling pieces of flotsam and jetsam out of the mud and dragging them back to shore. They found an anchor and a few barnacly things that they were enormously proud of, but the muck eventually proved too much for them, and their efforts deteriorated into a colossal running mud fight-fortunately, away from us and around the rim of the creek bed, out of sight.
That was our chance, our opening, our golden opportunity. Those big guys might have found an anchor, but they missed thegoodstuff. While they whooped and chased each other like savages, they completely ignored the gold mine the creek had laid bare: empty soda bottles. Scores of them. Everywhere. Old ones, new ones. Big ones, little ones. Pepsi. Nehi. Brand names we'd never even heard of-or, more likely, couldn't read. Some were slimey with goo; others sparkled like diamonds in the hard summer sun. Clearly our ship had come in. These bottles were worth two cents apiece, hard cash, from any grocery store. "Peter, get your wagon!"
The wagon didn't negotiate the creek bottom too well. Its narrow wheels sliced the mud like a plow. We ended up leaving it on shore. I stayed with it, chief guard and wagon packer. After all, Mom had laid down the law: I'd be whalloped into next week if I had so much as stuck a sneakered toe across the mean low water mark. Young as I was, the irony of such a restriction in this particular situation was not lost on me: Ma, there isn't water todrownin! But her imposition remained; perhaps my mother thought such an errant tide would sweep back across the flats in a hungry wall of water, scarfing down stray kids and spitting them out like watermelon seeds. Or not-she let my brother go (of course, we had boys to spare).
When the older kids returned from their battle, slimed and choked with mud, they scoffed at our efforts. "Nobody's gonna take those bottles," they snorted. "They've been lying around for fifty years!" Which doubtless some of them had. "They're gross and disgusting!" Which indeed most of them were. But blazing with the hope and courage of young enterprise, the boys sallied onward until they'd gotten every last bottle-that is, every bottle that could be had without sinking up to their knees in muck.
It took all of us hauling and pushing to get the wagon up the Market Street hill to a garden hose, where we set to work rinsing and scrubbing our catch of the day. Then we gathered all the empty bottles we could find in our own homes (a paltry haul by comparison) and turned our wagon toward Joe's.
Joe Collison ran a little store on the corner of Conduit and Union streets. He sold meat and popsicles, and he always knew whether your mother would approve of a clandestine candy purchase or not. ("Not from me, no sir. Not at a quarter to six I'm not selling you a Hershey bar and spoil your supper. No sirree.") Joe would have nothing to do with our bottles. "You didn't get those bottles here at my store, you didn't," he said, surveying the lot. "I'll take them there and that's all." Like some omniscient god he zeroed in on the bottles we had liberated from the cabinets at home.
We decided to gamble. It was all or nothing. If he didn't want the whole wagonload, we'd take our stash elsewhere. So we started off for the Acme. This was no mean trek. The Acme stood adjacent to the town dock (Fawcett Boat Supplies today). To get there we had to roll up Market Street, cut through the funeral home parking lot (something we were perennially warned against by our parents, who vowed to thrash us if they ever caught us trespassing there, which threat we perennially ignored), slide down Green Street and across Compromise Street.
Acme would have nothing to do with our bottles either. The manager himself even came out and gave us the once over. "Where'd you get them bottles at?" We told him that we got them from our various basements and kitchens. He didn't believe us. "I'll take them," he said pointing to the same bottles Joe had coveted. We looked at each other with the beginnings of panic. "We'll try the IGA," Peter said stoically. "Yeah, they'll take them," we echoed dutifully.
So the IGA it was. We had to cross by the gas station (where the flagpole is today) and again by the old fish market to the row of stores that faced the harbor. Then we had to wheel the wagon up the little inclined entryway that had the letters IGA inlaid in the stone. A friendly store clerk gave a laugh as we entered. "Get a load of this, will ya!" he called to the rest of his crew. "Now what do you expect to do with all that?" he asked.
"Turn it in for the deposits?" We faltered, a little abashed by now. We had run out of stores. The A&P, on the other side of the harbor, was too far even for eight-year-old boys to venture.
"You pick all this up out of the creek?"
How did he know? We went honest and told him the whole story, the gathering, the scrubbing, the rejections.
"They wouldn't take these bottles over to the Acme?" the man asked incredulously. "Why this is the best lot of bottles I've seen come through here in all my days. You bet we'll take 'em here sure enough. Every last one of them. Count 'em!" So we counted. I don't remember exactly how many bottles there were, but I distinctly remember that my share of the haul was 32 cents-a veritable fortune to a five-year-old. You can bet Mr. IGA got every penny of it back, too.
The tide swelled the creek back to normal eventually. It may have taken days for the rhythm to return. Or it may have been the fluke of a single day, an odd oops in the cosmic way of things. I don't recall that part of the story, only our wagonload of bottles and the remuneration it brought. As for the details, I scan through my memory banks and realize that it was all recorded by a five-year-old. And five-year-olds, I've discovered, tell colossal lies.